Kim Robinson looks distinguished in his suit jacket with a gold freedom flame on the lapel as he leans against a haunting exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Robinson, the Freedom Center's new CEO, casts a shadow against the backdrop: a two-story log slave pen that dominates the second-floor atrium of the museum on Cincinnati's riverfront.

A Kentucky slave trader used the pen in the 1830s to imprison slaves being shipped to auction. It is now one of the Freedom Center's iconic artifacts. Just a few days before posing against it, Robinson cried inside of it.

He was giving a private tour to visitors from a number of African countries and they were caught up in a moment of remembering the past.

"We cried in the slave pen and talked very candidly about freedom, about African slave trade, about our ancestors," Robinson says. "It was incredibly powerful."

Just walking in the doors of the $110 million museum stirs emotions for the 55-year-old Robinson, a former Procter & Gamble executive.

Obligation to Persevere

Each day, Robinson realizes how far the boy from modest means has come "” and how much he still has to prove.

"I feel an obligation to persevere," he says. "Even my own personal family history is a history steeped in slavery. I know some of the stories of how my grandfather overcame incredibly difficult odds and what he baked into my parents and what they passed on to me and what I've tried to pass on to my children about overcoming difficult obstacles."

He sees the Freedom Center as the place to tell those stories. But he wants to do more than chronicle atrocities of the past. He wants the museum to be a place to celebrate the triumph of freedom and to be relevant in discussing issues that face the city today.

"I want Cincinnatians to look at the Freedom Center and say, "¢Geez, I can't imagine Cincinnati without the Freedom Center,' " he says. "I don't think we've earned that yet."

For seven years, the Freedom Center has gleamed on the Ohio River bank, flanked by the stadiums like something out of a contemporary architecture magazine.

The museum is oriented toward the river "” symbolic of the border where slaves crossed north to their first steps of freedom. Freedom Center leaders want it to be that touchstone for the region, showcasing the heritage of those who helped 100,000 slaves come through the Underground Railroad.

"I hope the Freedom Center becomes a beacon of light for all freedom-loving people in Cincinnati and around the world," says Mitchel Livingston, vice president for student affairs and chief diversity officer at the University of Cincinnati, who serves on the Freedom Center board.

The image is something that hasn't fully emerged: that of a landmark symbol of hope and a gathering place for ideas and discussion.

"Has the community embraced us? Yes and no," Robinson says. "Yes, I'd say they've embraced us. Have they embraced us the way that I'd like to? No."

Not yet, he says. But he's working on it.

The reality is that the center's identity is still emerging. It is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum touted as a "museum of conscience." Robinson also hopes to earn the national designation to help it raise more money for its endowment.

Fundraising is his biggest challenge. The center has generous donors who helped it retire its $47 million debt last year. Former P&G CEO John Pepper, who was instrumental in initial fundraising and was the center's CEO for a time, is among those big donors. But Robinson sees federal support as a solution that would avoid local fights like the one Cincinnati City Council had last year over the center's financial health.

"I will say, attendance is important, and we constantly are trying to do things to try and drive it," Robinson says. "But I'm not aware of a single museum in the world that pays for all of its bills based on attendance."

Creating a Living Room

More than a million visitors have come through the Freedom Center since it opened, and while attendance now is flat versus last year (when 117,000 people visited), the center is working on that.

It is coordinating with Cincinnati Public Schools and Columbus Public Schools to develop a tour that fits into the schools' curricula. This year, three grade levels from Cincinnati Public Schools will visit.

The center also is part of an international program that works with the U.S. State Department to host about 200 dignitaries a year. Robinson wants to expand that by partnering with colleges and companies.

He's also inviting the museum's neighbors to think of it as their living room.

Now that the museum has neighbors, it wants to revamp its restaurant and encourage The Banks' crowd to become members and join events including the monthly book club on the Civil War or special concerts.

"I want to reassure people that although we've had some challenging times "” and, frankly, we've made some mistakes "” we have learned from our mistakes," Robinson says. "We are 100 percent debt-free. We are excited about the future. And we plan to be here a long time."

Selling an Image

If Robinson is to be successful at the helm of the Freedom Center, it will be because he's sold people on his idea of what it should be.

"In my last 10 years at Procter, I was a vice president in what we call "¢customer business development.' That's sales renamed," he says. "So, I'm a sales person."

He's trying to get rid of the mistaken impression that the museum is depressing.

"I've come to realize that this museum is not about the tragedy of slavery," he says. "It's about the triumph over slavery."

He mentions that celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore recently flew their jet into Lunken Airport and came specifically to visit "Invisible: Slavery Today," the permanent exhibit that focuses on contemporary slavery and issues such as sex trafficking and forced labor.

"They tweeted a lot about it," Robinson says.

Robinson is proud of other ways the museum is connecting with people, from its iPhone app to its blog and YouTube videos. He's glad to be part of a mentoring project that pairs African American business people with students. He's hosting Rotary Club meetings and the Junior League at the museum to reach a wider audience.

He's selling the cause of promoting courage, cooperation and perseverance, and making sure people know he's "not just sitting down here dusting off exhibits."

He is telling stories. He's making a sales pitch.

"This story that we tell is a timeless story," he says. "It's one that all Americans and even foreigners love to hear. And I would just challenge anybody from Anderson Township or West Chester or Norwood "” any place in Cincinnati. If you've never been to the Freedom Center, come visit us."